LIVING MY CALL—Called to Love the Unreached Peoples

By on March 2, 2017
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By Marilyn Tinnin

 

Called to Love the Unreached Peoples

 

Missionaries Cornelius and Angelique Gray spent the last three-and-a-half years serving as church planters in the Middle East, studying the complex Arabic language, learning the cultural “yeses” and “no’s” of an Islamic country and serving in outreach ministry with Syrian and Iraqi refugees through their local church. In August, they and their six children will take their knowledge with them to Lyon, France, where they hope to plant churches among the North African and Middle-Eastern immigrants there.

 

About 11% of France is Muslim. Islam is the second largest religious sect with Catholicism ranking number one. Protestants trail at a distant third.

 

Cornelius, a graduate of Murrah High School, and his wife Angelique are both graduates of the United States Naval Academy and had thought early in their relationship that the military would be their life’s work. They shared a thirst for experiencing other cultures, and as high achievers, enjoyed the challenges and discipline of the lifestyle. But God had other plans.

 

The very same abilities and personalities that thrived in the military setting were also essential in God’s strategic army as His soldiers on the mission field.

 

They were stationed in Beaufort, South Carolina, early in their marriage where they began attending Community Bible Church. Cornelius says, “The word of God touched us both in a profound way and really changed our lives.” The passion for the career-military service was replaced by a greater desire to go to seminary, to get formal Bible training, and to serve God full time.

 

It would take several more years to put all the pieces together, but Cornelius and Angelique look back and can trace God’s hand everywhere along their path. Before Cornelius left the military, he was assigned to the Marine for Life program in Jackson. His duties involved helping returning veterans connect with resources for education, employment, and benefits. But it was in that post that he began to attend Riverwood Bible Church which led to a year long opportunity to be mentored by spiritual giants and Biblical scholars, Pastor Jerry Clark and Pastor John Ward.

 

In 2004, he and Angelique and their growing family moved to Texas where he enrolled at Dallas Theological Seminary. Working part time, attending school part time—this was a seven-year journey.

 

With their hearts set on the mission field, they began that preparation with Christar, a non-denominational Church Planting ministry headquartered in Richardson, Texas. Their desire to work with least reached people made this particular ministry a perfect fit for them. In the summer of 2007, they took a “vision” trip abroad and spent several days with missionaries in various cities asking questions, observing the daily highs and lows of their lives, and gaining a sense of what it was like to be a missionary in a totally different culture.

 

They were not deterred and were most drawn to ministry to Muslims.

 

Cornelius graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary in 2011, and by 2012 they had raised all of their financial support and all of their prayer support. They had hoped to go to Tunisia, but the Arab spring of 2011 had left the area too unstable. They were rerouted to Jordan.

 

Christar already had a presence there. Jordanians were very welcoming to Christians doing humanitarian relief because their tiny economy had been overwhelmed with Syrian refugees. Cornelius would work in project management with another Christar staffer who managed The Arab Center for Consulting and Training Services. His job was to help with their communication with western donors.

 

Cornelius (left) and Angelique (front and center) and their six stair-step offspring spent four years as missionaries to Jordan and will join their new team in France in late summer.

Jordan is a great starting place for those wishing to do mission work in Muslim countries because there are so many centers for Arabic and English language study. Angelique says, “Learning the language is a job in and of itself. It is a rich language and will take us a lifetime to master it.” The numerous dialects of different Arabic-speaking countries make it difficult for people from one country to always understand someone from a different Arabic-speaking country.

 

Equally challenging and quite intimidating is learning the culture which is so very different from ours. They describe the “first term” or initial three or four years as almost totally committed to learning the customs, an endeavor essential to safety and acceptance. Proselytizing is strictly forbidden. Women don’t venture out alone, and their interactions are limited to relationships with other women.

 

Another struggle for Angelique and Cornelius involved race. Middle Eastern people are given a certain value based on who they are, and the classifying criteria are endless. The lighter one’s skin, the higher his rank in society. “We experienced the aspect of race that we never experienced in the military or here in the U.S. It was hard on our family,” says Cornelius.

 

Even so, the Grays did not think of quitting. “One of our motivators is the apostle Paul who always wanted to go to new environments and share with people who had not heard the gospel. We have the passion to be steadfast in what God has called us to.”

 

So, how does a Christian church ever get a church planted? It takes an extra measure of patience and a supernatural love for those who are 100% different in their worldview. It also takes an inordinate amount of trust in the Lord to open doors. Planting a church begins one relationship at a time.

 

An unusual thing the Gray’s quickly learned was that when Muslims meet a stranger one of their introductory questions is always, “Are you Muslim or are you Christian?” This cultural norm, unlike in America where such a question would be considered politically incorrect, opens the conversation to discuss one’s beliefs. It is far easier to get into a spiritual conversation in the Middle East than it is in America, and dialogue and friendship begins that way.

 

Cornelius speaks of befriending a Syrian family who had fled the bombing in their country. She was a physician and he was a lawyer. They lost everything before fleeing to Jordan. They were eventually able to move to Sweden, but while they were in Jordan, Cornelius and Angelique befriended them. “Even though their English was not perfect and our Arabic was kind of broken, we developed a friendship. God allowed us to have that time to deepen our love for the people. It also gave them some exposure to Christians,” said Cornelius.

 

He added, “One of the things we have learned is that as much as Americans can sit in their living rooms and see television and pictures of terrorists and make a mental assumption that most Arabs are like that, Arab people get a distorted view of Americans also. They consider America to be a Christian nation, but they see television with pornography and profanity and they think that is what Christianity is like. So, the presence of an American missionary in a country like Jordan—even with laws against sharing—gives us the opportunity to show them that Christianity is not what you see on television.”

 

Angelique says, “You cannot start with the gospel unless you have language, and you cannot start with language until you have relationship. It starts over coffee which is something they love. And then from there, trust and relationship develops. Now, you have a great foundation. They know you and they’re watching your life. Then they want to hear about who this person Jesus Christ is. That has been really neat for me to watch that patient work of what God begins and does in the life of that person as He initiates it all.”

 

The Grays will be in the United States until the end of August. These last few months mean traveling and speaking and raising support. When they arrive in France, they will begin more language studies, continuing to refine their Arabic and adding French to their resumes! With the influx of so many Syrian refugees in France and Christar’s well established team already on the ground, the Grays will be a great asset to the work there as the only members of the team who speak Arabic.

 

If you want to know more about the Grays, to contact them to speak to your church or group, or to receive their monthly newsletter, you can reach them at cdgray1974@gmail.com or 540.748.6177. To learn more about Christar see christar.org.